The Dubious Disctinction Between “Good” and “Bad” Drivers on Cell-Phones
I was bothered by this assertion in an editorial on cell-phones in cars:
Motorists who drive carelessly while on the phone — we’ve all seen them — are a hazard and should be penalized. The same is true for those who drive carelessly while operating their CD players, adjusting their GPS devices or fussing with their kids.
But a motorist driving attentively at a lawful speed on a safe, straight stretch of Interstate 5 should not be pulled over because of a telephone conversation.
Yes, obviously people driving recklessly, whether distracted or not, should be pulled over. But to assert that a motorist “driving attentively” on a “safe, straight stretch” of road while talking on a phone is beyond concern is a gross oversimplification of the emerging science.
It reminds me of a night, many years ago, when I was much younger and much more car-dependent (two conditions I do not long to return to), when I drove home in what can only be called a state of substantial intoxication — something I only became dimly aware of a number of minutes into the trip. Somewhat panicked, I rigorously drove the speed limit, and locked my attention on the road — “a safe, straight stretch” (I’ve said it before, “safe” is a relative term; the only objectively safe road is the one that’s never traveled).
In any case, by any external measure, I was just another law-abiding, prudent motorist. The fact was, however, that my physical impairments began with the first drink of the night and only got progressively worse, and that I very likely may have not been able to stop in the face of an unexpected “path intrusion,” or not seen a pedestrian in the crosswalk in time to react, etc. But I would not have been readily aware of the scale of this performance decrement, as all my attention was on keeping between the lanes and going the speed limit — which is not necessarily the same thing as safe, attentive driving. Of course, I may indeed have been drifting across lanes; but this feedback is not something always immediately apparent to drunk drivers.
This is the condition that cell-phone conversation presents. Even if there is not obvious “fiddling” with the phone (at least the person is aware of their distraction in that case) or drifting across lanes, there is still some portion of mental workload — higher than one would devote to a billboard, a passenger, or the radio — being dedicated to the task. The driver may still have enough left to operate the car in a seemingly effective manner, but it still leaves open the very good possibility that their performance would be impaired if something out of the ordinary were to happen. To our minds, we may be driving fine, by a certain measure, but just as we are fully unable to measure our own extent of distraction (often, one only realizes this afterward, as the miles traveled while talking have suddenly vanished from recollection, a sign of cognitive shedding), we also cannot predict how that distraction would leave us equipped to react to something unexpected. A car traveling the speed limit and staying within lanes is safe until the driver rear-ends someone who has unexpectedly come to a stop on the highway.
I am reminded of another good excerpt from a paper I referenced earlier this week, by Peter Hancock and colleagues, “On the philosophical foundations of driving distraction and the distracted driver,” in a recent book titled Driver Distraction: Theory, Effects, and Mitigation:
Driving, as we have seen, is a satisficing task. It is one in which all drivers frequently, and on certain occasions necessarily, fail to maintain their attention toward the “correct” source of attraction. Infrequently and unpredictably, these momentary failures encounter the precise environmental circumstances that induce collision. In Haddon’s terms, we “meet the tiger.” Society is content, in general, to chastise those unlucky drivers who find themselves involved in these rare collisions. This does not, of course, exempt those drivers who consciously make the decision to neglect to neglect their responsibilities. However, if collisions became more frequent by several orders of magnitude, society would not single out these ‘bad’ individuals but would seek to make corrections at a systemic level. However, we have been generally content to ratify our collective, institutional schizophrenia, which ‘blames’ the ‘bad’ drivers while encouraging the production of ever greater numbers of technologies that inevitably redirect drivers’ attention from the ever more satisficed task of vehicle control.
The editorial I referred to in the opening sentences wants to make this easy distinction between the “good” and “bad” driver. But it is not so clear; there are many “good” intoxicated drivers who become “bad” only when their blood is analyzed at a crash scene. There is also the problem of ethics: The individual driver may think talking on the phone is a good idea because they’ve done it “all the time” and they do it safely. But what is the moral consequence of participating in a behavior with known negative consequences for driving performance to other people? Already, just by getting behind the wheel, we are doing one of the few things in our life by which we easily have the capability to take someone’s life, accidentally or not; what is the ethical dimension to raising that likelihood, even marginally?
There is always the rejoinder, but why haven’t we seen a big increase in crashes and fatalities with phone use? The first point is there have been any number of fatalities already attributed to cell-phones; the second point is that most people do not talk most of the time, leaving more aware drivers to account for others’ mistakes — as a generation raised on Twitter hits the road it’s anyone’s guess. Another issue is that, perhaps through sheer luck, a majority of drunks make it home every night (should we thus do away with DUI?) And cars of course keep getting safer, which is no consolation to anyone outside the car, a condition common to most of us, even in America. In any case, this line of inquiry misstates the problem. The real question is not why there hasn’t been an increase but why we haven’t seen a great decline in this country (the recent small decline one was mostly due to economic factors) of traffic fatalities? Yes, driving per mile has become ever safer, but per-head of population the number killed is stubbornly similar to decades past. With each increase in car and road safety we seem to find new ways to make our own performance a touch more dangerous.
This entry was posted on Friday, February 27th, 2009 at 10:19 am and is filed under Drivers, Traffic Enforcement, Traffic Laws. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.